Alumni Spotlight: Ray Derr
Name: Ray Derr
Hometown: Arlington, TX
Currently Residing: Work in DC, live in Reston, VA
Current job: Project Manager for the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, Transportation Research Board
Graduated from UT: 1981 BSCE, 1991 MSCE
Hobbies outside of work: Running to clear my mind and singing with the Reston Chorale to do something creative in a completely different field. Traveling with my wife Theresa, a fellow Longhorn.
What projects did you work on while you were at CTR?
During my undergraduate days, I worked at the Structures Lab at what is now the J. J. Pickle Research Campus. I wired strain gauges, helped during pours and testing of specimens, and basically did whatever the grad student told me to. After graduating, I went to work for the Texas Department of Transportation and, after a few years, began taking some courses towards my masters. TxDOT then set up a special program to support employees working on advanced degrees and I went back to school full-time for a semester to knock out the rest of my coursework. During that semester, I did meet regularly with the CTR staff who were carrying out research that I was overseeing as a TxDOT staff.
How did your time here prepare you for your career?
I certainly got a solid foundation of knowledge in analysis but the more important gains were in creative problem-solving. Analysis tools are always going to be changing (that’s why I have a job) and the understanding of the underlying principles I gained at UT help me to stay relevant.
What CTR relationships have proved the most significant?
I’ve certainly spent the most time with Dr. Machemehl and enjoy getting reacquainted each year at the TRB meeting. Dr. Walton has been a great supporter and leader at TRB for as long as I’ve known him. I will always treasure the classes I had with Dr. Robert Herman, who stressed the need for understanding the physics and math underlying traffic flow analysis.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I manage research projects that that are of common interest to all of the state departments of transportation, largely in the areas of traffic engineering, geometric design, traffic safety, and, more recently, connected and automated vehicles. The projects are all very interesting and valuable to practitioners around the world. The volunteers that oversee each project and the contractors we work with are all outstanding and fun to work with.
What got you interested in transportation?
My dad was the TxDOT Fort Worth District Bridge Engineer so I started out leaning more towards the structures side. Between my junior and senior years, I worked for the City of Fort Worth’s Transportation Department. I did speed zone studies around town, used the mainframe computer to calculate traffic signal timing plans, walked around downtown to check that each signal on the system was in sync, and did high-accident location site studies. I enjoyed the variety of the work and the need to be creative in finding solutions.
What advice do you have for students considering a career in transportation engineering?
Transportation is a basic human need and people travel for a great variety of reasons. We tend to focus on getting to work but going to Sixth Street or Barton Springs are also important. There have already been large changes in how people choose to travel and automated vehicles and shared mobility services are going to accelerate those changes. Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, has said that she expects to see more changes in transportation over the next five years than occurred over the past 50. Working in transportation will allow you to directly improve people’s lives, whether by reducing the unacceptable number of deaths each year or by making travel easier or more fun.
What achievement in your professional life are you proudest of?
Since joining TRB in 1994, I’ve worked with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)’s Technical Committee on Geometric Design as they regularly update “A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets” (fondly referred to as the Green Book). Over the past several years, there has been a concerted effort to move from standards-based design to performance-based design and I’ve managed several research projects that have contributed. These changes are still going on but they will definitely help make sure that transportation projects make travel safer and easier for all modes of travel.